Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
Concord Learning Systems

Alexander Hamilton's Death on July 12, 1804.

For background leading to this article see:

Gen. George Washington's Aide de Camp resigns, and

Alexander Hamilton's lifelong burden.

Alexander Hamilton commanded the forces in the last major battle of the Revolutionary War against Cornwallis on October 14, 1781; participated in Cornwallis' surrender to Washington on October, 19; then resigned to civilian life on March 1, 1782.

In April, 1782, Robert Morris appointed him Continental receiver of taxes for the state of New York. Over the next six months he completed a three year course of study in law, passed the New York bar examination and was appointed a delegate to the Continental Congress. With tongue in cheek he wrote to General Marquis de Lafayette who was now back in Paris:

"I have been employed for the last ten months in rocking the cradle and studying the art of fleecing my neighbours. I am now a Grave Counsellor at law, and shall soon be a grand member of Congress. The Legislature at their last session took it into their heads to name me pretty unanimously one of their delegates."

Hamilton went to Philadelphia in November of 1782, a delegate to the Continental Congress, with a list of reforms and complaints, mostly about lack of support for the military. He had compiled the list while in the army and during his stint as Continental tax receiver. He soon learned that he was not the only disgruntled representative in congress; there was a kindred spirit in fellow delegate James Madison. Together they pushed for a stronger central government but in the end Hamilton noted on his copy of their resolution, "abandoned for want of support."

By May 1787, in the third Continental Congress, the situation had changed and by September a new constitution which included Hamilton's signature was presented to the country for ratification.

Hamilton recognized the chance for failure of the constitution and recruited James Madison, later the fourth President, and John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, to write the Federalist Papers. These three, writing over a common name, PUBLIUS, published the 85 essays now regarded as the authoritative documentation of "original intent."

In 1789 George Washington became the first President and Hamilton became the first Secretary of the Treasury.

As early as 1779 he had received his first taste of American prejudice and it had continued off and on ever since. Washington's enemies saw Hamilton as an indirect way of attacking Washington and they were ruthless. Attempts were made to recruit Washington's Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, against Hamilton but Jefferson, who had many spats with Hamilton, was in awe. Alexander Hamilton was a standout. Jefferson revealed to James Madison in 1795, "Hamilton is really a colossus . . . without numbers, he is a host within himself."

During Hamilton's tenure as Secretary of the Treasury he established a financial system which remains pretty much intact to this day, especially capital (stock) markets.

But by January, 1795, Hamilton had had enough of the back biting, especially from congressmen, and he left the cabinet and returned to his private law practice but he did not surrender to his critics. He continued to respond to every charge and to each criticism. His style of straight talk and no-nonsense often added fuel to the fire but he did not waver.

By the late 1790's and against Washington's high hopes, two political parties had started to emerge. Hamilton did not choose one party over another. Instead he took advantage of every opportunity to level his own criticism toward each opponent.

A year younger than Hamilton, Aaron Burr (1756-1836) was, unlike his rival, born of a respected family, and raised a natural aristocrat. Animosity between the two men had started during the ratification process. At a time of passionate debate, when all political beings jumped into the ring to defend their positions, Burr did not commit himself to either side, at least openly. Burr was to remain ambivalent throughout his political career; and that aspect of his personality was puzzling to most, intriguing to some, but it was downright maddening to Hamilton.

Hamilton was one of the few politicians of his day who was an open book. He explained himself to Robert Troupe in 1795: ". . .it has been the rule of my life to do nothing for my own emolument under cover. . . .I know it is pride. But this pride makes it part of my plan to appear truly what I am." Hamilton hid behind no mask.

Burr was the exact opposite. He tried to straddle every fence, please all sides. Hamilton learned through his friend Troupe that Burr was supportive of a plan to overthrow Washington's administration and he learned that Burr supported a notion of some northern states to separate and form their own country. On the other hand, Burr had often publicly supported Washington and Hamilton. This duplicity further enraged Hamilton.

During the course of the 1804 election Hamilton regularly and flagrantly vilified Burr in speeches, some of which were attended by Burr's agents who reported back on their contents. Burr took particular notice of an inflammatory claim that Hamilton had expressed certain "despicable" opinions of him, and that he "could detail . . . a still more despicable opinion." History does not reveal the nature of this more "despicable opinion" but it struck a nerve. What is revealed is that by this time Hamilton considered Burr to be the most dangerous man in the new nation.

Burr demanded satisfaction or retraction. Hamilton, perhaps realizing that he would never attain his own ambitions because of his accident of birth, accepted the challenge.

Burr received satisfaction at Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804, when he mortally wounded Hamilton on the first shot. Still alive, but paralyzed from the waist down, Hamilton was brought to the home of a friend where he slowly died from internal bleeding. He breathed his last at two o'clock in the afternoon on July 12.

Hamilton had been spiraling downward for some time, and was painfully aware of that fact. He met Burr's challenge with a puzzling resignation and the intention of holding his fire. Did Hamilton, as some have postulated, voluntarily sacrifice himself knowing that his death on the dueling ground would completely destroy Burr, (it did) and with him all of his schemes? Or was Hamilton simply taking advantage of an easy way out -- the "blaze of glory" he had pined for so many years ago? Whatever his temporal goal, what we do know is that Hamilton went to the duel determined that if anyone fell at Weehawken, it was not going to be Aaron Burr.

Alexander Hamilton left behind his wife Elizabeth, seven children, and a mountain of debts. After all the accusations that he had taken advantage of his offices for personal profit, Hamilton was close to broke when he died. For propriety's sake, he refused to enrich himself; for propriety's sake, he refused to accept the army pension to which he was entitled; for propriety's sake, he regularly undercharged his clients.

When he could have amassed a fortune he resolved not to, preferring instead to leave a blameless public record. He wrote on this point:

"Because there must be some public fools who sacrifice private to public interest at the certainty of ingratitude and obloquy -- because my vanity whispers I ought to be one of those fools and ought to keep myself in a situation the best calculated to render service -- because I don't want to be rich and if I cannot live in splendor in Town -- I can at least live in comfort in the country and I am content to do so."

Philosophos Historia

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